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The Higher Education Experience

Freaked out Millennials: The Causes and Consequences of Anxiety Disorder Among Undergraduate Students

As the first generation to come of age in the wake of the 2008 recession, and as a generation still grappling with increased economic uncertainty and worsening financial prospects in the wake of one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history, Millennials are experiencing anxiety like no other generation. But just how bad is this problem?  The Berkeley Institute for the Future of Young Americans takes a look at rising trends in anxiety experienced by undergraduate students on college campuses across the U.S. 

July 2018 - Policy Brief

Over one-half of undergraduate students felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year. In fact, 17% of undergraduates report having been diagnosed or treated for anxiety, a number that is 66% higher than it was in 2008. Compared to older Americans, Millennials are more likely to have been told by a health care provider that they have an anxiety disorder, and in California, they are more likely to have experienced recent serious psychological distress.  
While 29% of adults have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at least once in their lives, 32% of adolescents (ages 13-18) surveyed at the same time reported having been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, indicating that the problem is intensifying from one generation to the next.

The costs of anxiety disorder and mental disorders on the U.S. economy are large and increasing. Anxiety leads to an increased burden on the health care system, a loss in earnings for workers, and reduced productivity. Most recent estimates from the 90s approximated that the direct and indirect costs of anxiety disorder are around $47 billion. Between 2002 and 2012, medical expenditures for mental disorders rose from $58.6 billion to $83.6 billion, a 42% increase in expenditures.  

What is behind the spike in rates of anxiety? Why are younger Americans increasingly at risk? 

To date, public policy, public health, medical, and economic disciplines have yet to fully examine the many underlying complicated factors driving  these trends. This cross-disciplinary study tackles these important unresolved questions – it investigates what is causing the increase in anxiety among young adults, it projects what the consequences may be for young Americans and for society as a whole if the problem goes unresolved, and it explores what the right policy solutions are to address it.  

Anxiety by the Numbers
  • Anxiety tops as the most pressing mental health concern among college students. 
  • 39% of Millennials say their stress has increased in the last year, compared to 36% of Generation Xers, 33% of Boomers, and 39% of Silents. 
  • While 61% of adults report doing enough to manage stress, only 51% of Millennials say they are doing enough to manage stress.
  • Since 2007, University of California health centers witnessed a 54% increase in students seeking access to mental health services. 
  • Women are 60% more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime.
  • 60% of adults and 70% of children in need of treatment do not receive mental health services. 
  • Among adults who reported unmet mental health service need, nearly 45 percent reported that cost was a major barrier to receiving care.
Anxiety: What is it Costing Us?

Since individuals with severe mental health conditions are 6-7 times more likely to be unemployed than people with no mental health condition, and those with a mild-to-moderate condition are 2-3 times more likely to be unemployed, the productivity and economic prospects of young adults are particularly at risk as a result of anxiety disorder trends. In fact, in California, from 2011 to 2015, the number of young adults who were unable to work one or more days due to mental problems increased by nearly 10 percentage points.  

The overall economic burden of serious mental illness in the U.S. was $317 billion in 2002, a 59% increase in economic burden since 1992. Moreover, there was a nearly $100 billion-dollar increase in loss of earnings over the same ten-year period. Among the five costliest medical conditions in the U.S., mental disorders saw the most significant increase in medical expenditures between 2002 and 2012. 

Total health care expenditures for anxiety and mood disorders totaled $36.8 billion in 2007. Nearly 20% of these expenditures were from out-of-pocket expenses. In 1990, the direct and indirect costs of anxiety disorder were estimated to be $47 billion, with over three-fourths of these costs attributed to indirect costs outside of medical treatment. With the economic burden of mental illnesses soaring since the 1990s, and with anxiety disorders being the most common mental disorders, this cost is likely significantly more now. Moreover, given that it has been nearly three decades since the economic burden of anxiety was examined, this study is even more important to understand the true current cost. 

Our Study: What’s Driving Anxiety? 

With serious and increasing economic costs, there is a need to better understand what drives anxiety. Research illustrates that anxiety is correlated with employment, income, debt, educational attainment, parental education, and dependence on internet devices such as smart phones and social media. However, to-date, no study has comprehensively analyzed what causes anxiety, and why prevalence among young adults is so high. This study will evaluate causal factors and will take the next step in proposing effective policy solutions to address increasing anxiety among Millennials.